In America by Geert Mak

In 1960 at the age of 58, the novelist John Steinbeck began a journey across America, driving all the way in a truck, accompanied only by his dog Charley. Having already suffered a minor stroke, it was a gesture of defiance in the face of oncoming infirmity as Steinbeck set off to reacquaint himself with his country. Fifty years later, Dutch author Geert Mak set out to recreate the trip. The result is this travelogue, In America.

In America

Mak’s account has one main weakness in that he has a particular agenda. He wants to report on the rise of the radical right in the USA, so he spends his trip gorging on Fox News and listening to ‘shock jocks’ on the radio. Personally, I don’t believe that most people in the US listen to these people while they’re driving down the interstate. I’m beginning to wonder if the right-wing DJ Rush Limbaugh’s audience figures are mostly composed of European intellectuals looking for something to be offended about.

Those shortcomings only make up a tiny portion of the book, and, thankfully, Mak has a sardonic wit, which he uses to land clear blows on the objects of his derision.

There’s a fear of terrorist attacks in Far-Off Europe … the United States has even issued a travel advisory. Americans are advised to be extremely careful in European countries. As for me, I’m heading for Detroit (some 360 murders a year), Chicago (450), and New Orleans (170) but no one in authority has given me any warnings.

In fact, Mak soon gets bored of Steinbeck as he discovers that the great man had made up most of what he wrote about on his 1960s road trip. Once Mak begins exploring America for himself and talking to real people, the book really comes into its own.

Even having gone to school in the US, there were things here which I had never heard of before. For example, did you know that

Thirty out of the fifty American states have fewer inhabitants than Denmark [c.5.5 million].

Mak is even better on US history. I loved the section on the early puritans:

In Massachusetts in 1663 a law was introduced that made time-wasting a punishable offence: ‘No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict’.

Icons and heroes of American history are also subject to Mak’s investigating eye. When he turns his attention to Custer’s Last Stand, we discover that there wasn’t much heroic about the army’s actions at The Battle of the Little Big Horn.

it is now possible to reconstruct fairly accurately the movements of many of the men on the battlefield. In a few places, there are signs of organised resistance, but in general, everyone ran for his life … The entire battle may have lasted no more than twenty minutes.

Not being a fan of Steinbeck, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It is very well-written, although it is strange that such an intelligent commentator can come up with silly generalisations like:

Americans like opportunities; Europeans prefer certainties.

Nevertheless, in the main, this is a thoughtful and revealing study of the United States. The funny thing is that at the end of their trips, both Steinbeck and Mak ended up profoundly depressed about the state of the nation. It must be something that affects men of a certain age (Mak is in his sixties) because it seems to me that the United States will continue setting the cultural agenda of the world for decades if not centuries to come. That’s why we all keep reading books like this.

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12 responses to “In America by Geert Mak

  1. Interesting. I’m about halfway through The Grapes of Wrath, the first Steinbeck I’ve read. Well, Not quite true. I read The Pearl and The Red Pony as a child in school, but I don’t count them because I remember nothing about them. And I would have been too young to appreciate them anyway.

    • I remember reading a sample from the Red Pony at school too and I found it quite depressing. That put me off Steinbeck for life because I assumed he was impossibly gloomy. How are you finding the Grapes of Wrath? Would you recommend it?

      • It’s very interesting from a historical perspective and many parts are very well done. I’m making my way through it slowly and will need time to digest it afterwards, but so far yes, I would recommend it.

        I’ve heard similar takes on Steinbeck from those who read the Red Pony at a young age. I guess educators need to rethink what they are doing to the poor man and by turning off his potential readers at such impressionable ages. But maybe they already have. Kids in school today are reading stuff that is … well, it’s not Steinbeck, I don’t think.

      • A bold defence, Walt and maybe you’re right that schools are putting later readers off Steinbeck. My respect for him went up massively when I learned that on receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, they asked him if he felt he deserved it, to which Steinbeck replied “Frankly, no”!

  2. A good assessment of Mak’s book and America, Mr. Savage. For a critical but upbeat look at the imperfect but mostly beautiful USA, plus details of my personal connection with Geert Mak and how I exposed the serial fictions & fibs John Steinbeck and his editors put into “Charley,” I urge you to check out my Amazon ebook “Dogging Steinbeck” or go to my website TruthAboutCharley.com. As a bonus my careful but entertaining journalistic retracing of Steinbeck’s “Charley” 1960 road trip — which I, at age 63, did in 2010 alone and a few days ahead of Mak — offers you and your countrymen a rare libertarian-centric view of Flyover America and its good people. I ended my 11,276-mile road trip not disgruntled or pessimistic about America or its future. But i was, per usual, annoyed that its political leaders in Washington — both major parties — were such a bunch of power-crazed wankers who’ve made the USA a Nanny State at home and a stupid bully overseas.

    Mak, by the way, is a great man, not just a great journalist/historian. He gave me full credit in his book for being the first to discover Steinbeck’s literary crimes against nonfiction. He and I have since met (he flew to Pittsburgh last year from New York just to meet me and buy me lunch). Despite his being a self-defined “euro-socialist” and my being a longtime libertarian newspaper columnist and reporter, we got on famously and found much to agree on. I’m in his book and he’s in mine. Unfortunately, my ebook has sold maybe 20 copies in the UK and his book (the Dutch-language version) sold a ton in the Netherlands, where Mak is a household name. The English version of “In America” has been reviewed fairly widely (and fairly fairly) in the UK press (links to the reviews are at my web site). “Dogging Steinbeck’s” take on America and its faults is a refreshing counterweight to the grim lefty-liberal views found in Steinbeck’s book and in Mak’s followup. It has lots of photos and cheap jokes, but no footnotes.

    • Hello Bill – I recognised your name from Mak’s book. That’s right that he shadowed you across the USA and it’s a funny game of cat and mouse that you both play as you cross the country. I enjoyed his book enormously and I shall take up the gauntlet and read your one too. Then, I’ll need to read Travels with Charley to get back to the source material itself.
      To be be fair to Mak, I should note that he is a big fan of the US (as am I) even if he does get a bit down about things at times! I’m keen to read his thoughts on Europe next.
      Thank you for your comments!

      • Thanks much, Alastair. Here’s the best idea, and one I always recommend: Read “Travels With Charley” first. If you read Steinbeck’s “nonfiction” work and then my “Dogging Steinbeck,” which I have sarcastically dubbed a work of “True Nonfiction. Make sure to get the 50th anniversary edition of “Charley” from 2012. It includes the amended introduction by Jay Parini, who because of my trouble-making warns readers that Steinbeck’s account of his journey around the USA was so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.

  3. Ah Fox News, it would be the best satire around if people didn’t take it seriously. It sounds like an awkward book with Mak and Steinbeck not particularly getting on that well. I do like books that combine many different aspects as well as confirming what we all believe about the state of the nation.

    • That’s the key , isn’t it that no one takes that kind of broadcaster seriously. They’re just chasing headlines.
      This book by Mak is massive too by the way – a good 500 pages and he heads through a lot of those northern states where I think you may have been during your stateside sojourn last year.

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